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2001 marked the 75th anniversary of the original Used Car Guide — which was first published back in 1926! Read the story of how it all happened.
In 1918, a young man named Les Kelley parked three Model T Fords in an open lot, put $450 in the till and started the Kelley Kar Company. It was to become the largest dealership in the world and, along the way, spawn a need for placing values on used cars, known as "Blue Book values."
Les Kelley was the son of a preacher from Arkansas. He made his way to California in 1914 at the age of 17. He had no money and no job, but he owned an old car. It was in fine shape because he had a knack for mechanics and had overhauled it himself. All of his friends admired his car and frequently tried to buy it. After much persuasion he finally did sell it to one of them. With the money he received from this deal Les bought another old Ford. After giving this car a thorough overhauling, he traded it off, taking in two used cars and a little money on the deal. He reconditioned these cars and sold them. With the money he bought other used automobiles and found himself making enough money to pay his way through college.
Then, in 1918, like many young men at the end of World War I, Les Kelley sought to establish himself in the business world. He leased part of a lot from another car dealer in Los Angeles and started the Kelley Kar Company with three cars for sale. His brother, Buster, at age 13, joined Les as a lot boy, changing tires and washing cars. By the age of 18 Buster ran the repair shop, with a dozen mechanics, and Les managed sales. Les and Buster did so well that they had to move to progressively larger sites.
In the early 1920s, to help acquire new inventory, Les Kelley distributed to other dealers and to banks a list of automobiles he wished to buy and the prices he was willing to pay for them. The automotive community began to trust his judgment so much as an accurate reflection of current values, they started to request the list for their own use. When someone asked a dealer what his used car might be worth, the dealer usually took a look at Mr. Kelley's list, conveniently tucked under his desk blotter. It didn't take long for Les Kelley to realize that he could provide an ongoing service to dealers and bankers alike.
1926 was an interesting year for individual achievement. A 19-year-old American named Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel; "Our Trudy" was the first woman to conquer the Channel, and her time was almost two hours faster than the men's record. Babe Ruth led the Yankees into the World Series (although he made the final out in game seven, when he was caught stealing). Edsel Ford had risen to President of Ford Motor Company, soon to announce the Model A.
And in Los Angeles, Les Kelley decided to expand the list of automobile values he had been producing since 1918 and published the first Blue Book of Motor Car Values. He showed factory list price and cash value on thousands of vehicles, from Cadillacs to Duesenbergs, from Pierce-Arrows to Hupmobiles. A 1926 Packard sedan limousine, with balloon tires, might fetch as much as $3,825. But a 1921 Nash touring car, even with a clock, was only worth $50. Les named the publication "Blue Book" after the Social Register, because it meant that you would find valuable information inside. (Emily Post had also just published her first book of etiquette, which was to later be named, Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage). And Les Kelley was to make Kelley Blue Book synonymous with the authoritative source for used car values. To this day, across the country, people ask the question, "What's the Blue Book on my car?" At the dealership Les was selling "Selected Blue Seal Automobiles," so he carried the blue and gold ribbon medallion onto the cover of the Blue Book, where it remains today.
Kelley Kar Company was always known for innovative approaches to selling cars. In the early 1920s all automobiles were painted black (the joke went that Henry Ford would say you could buy any color Model T you wanted, as long as it was black). The truth is, the only reason that all cars were black was because that paint dried faster. Back then it took about a month to paint a car, because every coat on every part had to be air dried. Due to its unique chemical make-up, black paint dried faster than other colors. As it was, Ford had to devote about 20 acres of covered storage just for cars waiting to dry. One day, when Buster Kelley (shown here) was managing the body shop, an employee was about to repaint a car. He suggested they repaint it pink! Buster questioned the logic of this at first, but the painter agreed to repaint it black again for free if it didn't sell. So they painted it pink, put it in the showroom, and it sold immediately. So they painted another one pink, and it sold. Finally they painted every car in the body shop pink! Sales soared. (Incidentally, DuPont came up with a lacquer that, in any color, dried in two hours, instead of a month, and the industry changed overnight).
Both the dealership and the publication continued to flourish. Buster Kelley eventually worked his way up to General Manager of the dealership and Publisher of the Blue Book. Kelley Kar Company had moved to the corner of Figueroa Street and Pico in Los Angeles and took up nearly an entire block. The repair/body shop at another location on Pico employed over a hundred people. For many years the dealership operated solely as a used car operation, which was to become the largest in the world. In those days new car dealerships didn't sell used cars, so the Kelleys bought vehicles that new car dealers were taking in trade, as well as directly from the public. Sometimes the line of cars waiting to be appraised would wind around the block all day. During the Depression there were times when they bought the entire inventory of dealers who went out of business.
The 1930s and '40s were a different world from the car business today. Often, as a part of the sale, Buster had to spend Saturday or Sunday teaching the buyers (sometimes both husband and wife) how to drive! The Kelleys opened their own insurance company and auto club and sold the whole package with the automobile.
World War II brought with it a shortage of cars. Used car prices got so high the government decided to put a ceiling on prices and used the Blue Book as the ceiling for both wholesale and retail. Subscribing to the book became a must for dealers. At the dealership the Kelleys continued to innovate. They bought cars in the East and shipped as many as 1,000 a month to Los Angeles in freight cars. A person about to be drafted could sell his car to Kelley Kar Company and then continue to drive it right up until he left for the war. When the war was over, they offered the "G.I. Credit Plan," no money down and up to 5 years to pay.
Buster's son, Bob, started in the business much like his father had, as a lot boy. He pushed a tank around and put 32 pounds of air in every tire (and made 50¢ a day). After college he joined the company full time as a buyer and then in sales. Les Kelley bought a small Ford franchise during the war and afterward the Kelley Kar Company operated as both a used and new car dealership. Full-page newspaper ads invited crowds into the Kelley showroom. And Buster became perhaps the nation's first dealer to use a new medium—television! Commercials ran as long as 15 minutes, where Buster would walk around the showroom pointing out specials that offered a guarantee: return the car within 30 days and you could trade it for any other car at the same or higher price. Plenty of show business people bought cars from Kelley. The picture above shows Randolph Scott taking delivery of his new Ford from Les Kelley. More success followed. By the 1950s they had become the largest Ford dealer in addition to being the largest used car dealership in the world.
By the late 1950s Les Kelley, then in his sixties, decided to cash in on some of that success. He made a decision to sell the dealerships rather than move them again (this time would have meant a move out of downtown L.A.). By 1962 the Kelleys were completely out of the car business and devoting full time to the Blue Book, with Buster as Publisher and Bob (shown below) as Assistant Publisher. The company moved to Long Beach and later to Orange County. Les continued to be active in the business until his death in 1990, at the age of 93.
For the next thirty years the Blue Book was to thrive as a "trade" publication, meaning it was only sold to businesses involved in the automotive industry, such as dealers, financial institutions and insurance companies. These customers used the bimonthly book to determine everything from loan values to suggested retail prices. Kelley Blue Book continued to innovate, becoming the first publication to show the effect of high or low mileage on a car's value.
As a natural evolution, the company began publishing other value guides. A New Car Price Manual was added in 1966, and the company became the industry's leading provider of pricing services. Auto dealers sometimes carried recreational vehicles or took them as trade-ins, so they needed information on these too. Kelley Blue Book developed RV guides that place values on everything from travel trailers to campers to ATVs to snowmobiles. A separate Motorcycle Guide was published, and a Manufactured Housing Guide.
As the quality of cars improved, people began to drive them longer, and the average age of a vehicle on the road today has been estimated to be about nine years. The Blue Book covered seven years, so it made sense to produce a sister publication, the Older Car Guide that provided values another 14 years back. Then came the Early Model Guide, which today provides values all the way back to 1950!
The Kelley family tradition reached a third generation in 1978, when Bob's son, Mike, joined the company. Mike's background in computers made him a natural to usher in the computer age for vehicle values. In essence, ever since Les Kelley's first newsletter, the company has really been in the information business. The delivery method of that information keeps evolving, from a letter to books to PC-based software to the Internet! Mike Kelley became General Manager in 1981 and helped develop systems for dealers to get trade-in values on-line. That led to PC software for new car pricing and software for creating retail window stickers for used cars that features the "Blue Book Suggested Retail" price. Last year over 2 million cars were sold with a sticker from Blue Book.
In 1993 Kelley Blue Book made its initial venture into the consumer marketplace, by publishing a Consumer Edition of the Blue Book. It features 15 years of used car values on over 10,000 models of cars, trucks and vans and is available in bookstores, auto supply stores and other locations.
In 1995, Kelley Blue Book saw a further opportunity to facilitate transactions between consumers and retailers by offering new and used car pricing on kbb.com and by sending visitors to companies who could help in the transaction. In support of the tagline, guiding the car buyer, kbb.com gave consumers choices of ways to buy and sell cars, get financing, insurance, etc. Today, we have helped create a new breed of informed consumer, who not only receives pricing from Kelley Blue Book, but guidance in what kind of vehicle to buy, through decision guides, side-by-side comparisons, car reviews and other tools, tips and advice.
For the year 2000, kbb.com was the number one automotive site in the nation (Jupiter Media Metrix). Over 5 million unique visitors generate some 30 million pricing reports per month. Perhaps more importantly, it is by far the most visited site by people who actually bought cars. According to J.D. Power and Associates' Autoshopper.com studies, 53% of Internet new car buyers and 55% of used car buyers came to kbb.com. Kelley Blue Book continues to be the most recognized and respected brand in automotive awareness studies. By being the "champion of the transaction," Kelley Blue Book continues to serve both the automotive buyer and the industry that builds and sells the vehicles.
Kelley Blue Book, is the number one Automotive Information site on the web (Nielsen NetRatings). Over 4.5 million unique visitors generate 27 million plus pricing reports on average per month. Of equal importance, it is by far the most visited site by in-market car buyers. For the 5th year in a row, J. D. Power and Associates' 2002 New and Used Autoshopper.com studies find to be the most frequently visited Automotive website. According to J. D. Power and Associates' New and Used Autoshopper.com studies in November 2002, 44% of Auto Internet Users, which is a 5% increase over last year's studies. Kelley Blue Book continues to be the most recognized and trusted brand in automotive awareness studies and its role as "champion of the transaction" serves both the auto buyer and the automotive industry. Advertising opportunities include a variety of ad models with in depth targeting including premium sponsorships and rich media.
The following are more information and news on Kelley Blue Book
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